This post, from April 2014, is being re-upped in light of Colbert's first show on Tuesday night.
Stephen Colbert made his mark in comedy — and politics — as a conservative. He repeatedly lambasted President Obama, the Democratic Congress and a panoply of liberal outlets. Like this riff on President Obama and the NSA spying scandal.
Except that Colbert was kidding. From the pronunciation of his last name — kohl-BEAR not kohl-BERT — to his espoused arch-conservatism, Colbert was, self admittedly, playing a character named "Stephen Colbert." And ever since reports in April 2014 announced his hiring to succeed David Letterman as the next host of "Late Night" on CBS, the character "Stephen Colbert" would be no more. In the new role beginning Tuesday night, Colbert, 49, will retire the faux conservative character.
That fact didn't stop some conservatives from touting the hire via Twitter. (It's worth noting that detecting sarcasm on Twitter is close to impossible. A sarcasm/irony font is necessary.)
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) April 10, 2014
Sarcasm or no, not all conservatives were so sanguine. Rush Limbaugh blasted the hire; "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives," he said on his eponymous radio show Thursday. Now it’s just wide-out in the open. ... It’s the media planting the flag here. I think even the media’s last stand, but it’s a declaration. There’s no unity in this hire. They hired a partisan so-called comedian to run a comedy show.”
The back and forth over Colbert's — or should we say "Colbert's" — conservatism raises a question: What are Stephen Colbert's politics?
That's a somewhat difficult question to answer because he spent so little time out of character in recent years — particularly as "The Colbert Report" grew bigger and bigger. The assumption — among Democrats and most Republicans — is that the real Colbert is a Democrat, a perception largely due to his viciously biting satire of conservatism as "Stephen Colbert."
During a 2005 appearance on NPR, Colbert — then a "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" correspondent — appeared to confirm that his conservative blowhard character did indeed come from his liberal worldview. "Jon asked me to have a political opinion, and it turned out that I had one," Colbert said. "But I didn't realize quite how liberal I was until I was asked to make passionate comedic choices, as opposed to necessarily successful comedic choices."
And then there was the whole matter of excoriating President Bush and the Iraq War at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
But more recently, Colbert has been far more fuzzy about his own politics. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2009, Colbert was asked about a study out of Ohio State University that showed most conservatives believed he was one of them. "I'm thrilled by it!" he said. "From the very beginning, I wanted to jump back and forth over the line of meaning what I say, and the truth of the matter is I'm not on anyone's side, I'm on my side."
In October 2012, he told "Meet the Press" host David Gregory: "I'm interested in the news, so people often think that I'm an ideologue or that I have a political intent. ... But I comment on things that are in the news."
And, he told Foxnews.com in the fall of 2013: “I'm not trying to make a point; I'm trying to make a joke. Sometimes my personal views are what I am saying, but it is important to me that you never know when that is."
A search of Colbert's past political donations at the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that he has given to only one candidate in his life — his sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), who ran unsuccessfully against now-Rep. Mark Sanford (R) in a 2013 special election in South Carolina. He gave the maximum $5,200 to his sister's campaign.
What is clear is that Colbert's audience — despite his faux conservatism — tilted heavily liberal and Democratic. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey of news consumption and partisanship found that just more than one in 10 viewers (12 percent) of "The Colbert Report" were Republicans, while 38 percent were independents and 45 percent identified themselves as Democrats. Just 14 percent of Colbert viewers identified themselves as "conservatives." Those numbers mirrored the "Daily Show" viewership and amounted to the smallest number of Republicans and conservatives watching any show short of the decidedly liberal "Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.
While Colbert's personal politics will be a major part of the discussion as he makes the massive move from Comedy Central to CBS late-night, they might well be beside the point. The real question at the heart of Colbert's move is whether he can be successful playing not "Stephen Colbert" but rather simply being Stephen Colbert.